It was only a matter of time before the stuffing hit the fan. In fact, some years ago I warned in this magazine that the day would come when something awful would happen that would push the image of the trucking industry down to a level where it would be condemned by all. That day arrived on September 5th 2013 when a truck careened through an intersection at the bottom of Field’s Hill in KwaZulu Natal and smashed into a number of cars and taxies resulting in the death of 22 people. While this is certainly not the first time so many bodies have been strewn across the road, the difference here was that a video clip of the accident went viral. This clip was followed by another which showed more clearly how the truck acted as a missile obliterating the cars and taxies in its path. The nation , and indeed the world – saw the horror on their phones, computers, IPads and the trucking industry was put firmly in the spotlight.
It is not my intention to analyse that accident here. Accident investigators – who are known to FleetWatch – were commissioned by both the Road Traffic Management Corporation as well as by the trucking company to conduct in-depth studies into the accident and these findings will come out in court. Although the outcry of rage was absolutely understandable, what did amaze me, however, is how everyone in the country became an overnight expert on trucks with fingers of blame being pointed at the driver, then the operator, then the authorities in so many different ways. Before it was established if the truck was indeed unroadworthy, many had declared it as such. There is a lot of uncertainty but one thing is certain – when that truck went through that robot, it had no brakes to stop it. Was this due to the truck being unroadworthy, the driver being untrained or was it due to ‘˜brake failure’. Answers to the first two questions will come out in court but one thing for sure is that it was not due to , as so many have speculated – ‘˜brake failure’. There is no such thing as ‘˜brake failure’. Brakes only fail if the operator fails to maintain them, or if the driver fails to put his foot on the brake pedal , or, my guess in this case, if the driver puts his foot on the brake pedal too often and too hard on a descent causing excessive heat to build up between the brake shoes and the drum which results in friction being lost and the brakes becoming totally ineffective. This is what is called ‘˜brake fade’ and experts tell me that at a certain heat, ‘˜brake fade’ can occur within 10 to 15 seconds.
Modern trucks have amazingly sophisticated braking systems and any trained driver will take that hill using his brake retarder without once having to touch his service brakes. I was once privileged to go on a trip with Voith to drive down Mount Etna testing their brake retarders. Not trusting my driving skills, I asked for a professional driver and we went all the way down without him once touching the service brakes. He used the different stages of the retarder. No, I’m lying. He did touch the service brake , once, to stop over the last metre when we were parking at the bottom. From what I can gather, the Field’s Hill truck did not have a retarder fitted as original equipment and I doubt if one was fitted as an after-market fitment. So the driver had his gears and his service brakes. How these were used by the driver is what one has to look at. Also, was that truck unroadworthy at the top of the hill? If so, it means the operator did not conduct the correct maintenance on the truck and the brakes were not in a condition to work as they should. But I hope we don’t hear anything about ‘˜brake failure’ in the court proceedings. Brakes do not fail and we have to get away from this misconception. More accurate is to state that the ‘˜brakes were not working’. Why they were not working will provide the answers needed. Someone has to be accountable for why the ‘˜brakes were not working’.